In 2019 in France, according to census data, 800,000 in-laws live with their spouse’s children. Among them, 27% are mothers-in-law. What these data do not say is that there are in fact many other configurations of so-called “recomposed” families, where the number of in-laws in particular can be changed upwards.
Official statistics struggle to count mixed families, because the circulation of children between certain households is difficult to understand with demographic tools.
It has so far arbitrated for a definition of the blended family according to which children born of previous unions “live” within the blended home. However, the verb is in public statistics synonymous with “cohabitation” permanently or alternately (in the legal sense of alternating residence that recognizes the equality of time spent with each of the separated parents).
However, legal statistics show that residence is mainly settled with only one of the two parents after separation, usually the mother (almost three-quarters of the decisions recorded by the justice of family affairs), the other parent therefore often hosts him. children for a limited time (every other weekend and half of the holidays). We must add here that the paths of reunification differ between fathers and mothers, men reuniting more often and faster than their former spouses.
A type of reconstituted family appears, left in the shadow of the INSEE figure, although there is no doubting the fact that it is a large part of these arrangements: families consisting of a mother-in-law, herself without son, lives with his wife’s children. a small part of the time.
Invisible in public statistics, ignored by the legislator despite several failed attempts to legislate specifically on the status of the step-parent, these step-mothers suffer from constant negative stereotypes about them. Their place appears increasingly uncertain as it resists the stability and centrality attributed to the role of the mother. In short, being a mother-in-law in a blended family seems more difficult than being a mother-in-law.
From widowhood to co-parenting
These family situations do not constitute, in their morphology, a particularly modern form of the Western family. They have existed for a long time, but are the result of widowhood where most contemporary “blended families” are created following divorce or separation.
This change raises new questions, especially about the place taken by the step-parent. Yesterday, the death of one of the original parents allowed the widow’s new partner to “replace” the parent she had just replaced.
Today, the place is no longer vacant, and the principle of co-parenting structures is the regulation of situations after separation: considering that it is in the interest of the child to be “raised by both parents, whether the parents are united or not”, he poses as a possible suspect in the figure of the step-parent who is suspected of usurping the place of the parent who is not at home. The exclusivity underlying our kinship models (a single father and a single mother) is doubled in the case of the mother because of the centrality of her role to the children.
In addition, public authorities were alarmed by the loose relationship between the children and their father after the couple’s separation. These concerns partly place a form of responsibility on the mother’s shoulders: a conflicted relationship with her stepchildren risks weakening the relationship with the father, especially since fatherhood is still primarily mediated by a woman. figure ( the mother of the children in the united couple; at the end of a separation of their new wife or their own mother, etc.).
Position yourself in the recomposed constellation
Beyond the mediating role that mothers-in-law can be led to play between their husbands and their children, it is their own place that must be reintegrated into the system of interpersonal relations within the reconstituted constellation. Because the “parental” role that they choose, in variable ways, to invest in, is also framed by all the main characters within the reconstructed home, but also outside it.
The wife, relying on her legitimacy as a parent, plays the main role in defining this role, whether she has an integrating function by encouraging her partner to take on a quasi-parental role, or vice versa . that he keep him away from any educational function.
The domains and spheres that the step-parent can occupy are at the scale of the new couple. The time shared – by cohabitation or age of recomposition – and the children’s reactions are not related to the arbitrations carried out by each of the protagonists of the recomposed household to define the contours of the mother-in-law area. .
However, the children’s attitudes are often interpreted as reflecting a conflict of loyalty they feel towards their mother, when the latter is not only accused of interfering in the life of the new couple. In fact, the other parent of origin remains an intermediary, with regard to the place of the step-parent, and mothers are reluctant to see the other woman in whom they invest in what seems to them to be within their prerogatives. .
These methods of interpersonal negotiation and adjustment cannot be understood outside of the power relations that operate in the family, depending on the resources (economic, social, cultural) available to each of the main characters to assert their position, which highlights the diversity of situations. in position in the social hierarchy.
Lack of landmarks?
Moreover, if there is such a pluralism of “mother-in-law” attitudes, it is also because the criteria for defining this role remain vague, even contradictory. Thus, their role is negatively defined in both senses of the term.
On the one hand, representations of the mother-in-law remain full of negative stereotypes, such as the figure of the evil “stepmother” in fairy tales. This is also based on an observation made by filmmaker Rebecca Zlotowski Other people’s childrenwhich offers another representation of the mother-in-law through the character played by Virginie Efira.
On the other hand, social science research has long designated these families as “incomplete institutions” that lack reference points. In fact, if uncertainty remains, it is probably because the rules set about the role of mother-in-law are formulated in a negative way, stating what should not be done more than what they can do. They are accompanied by forms of self-restraint and a demand for reflexivity about one’s own role, which requires these mothers-in-law to have a certain number of resources (temporal, cultural, etc.) that are unevenly distributed among social space.
This uncertainty is reinforced by conflicting mandates: as women, they are expected to “naturally” care for children and prove their motherhood… while they are forbidden to “take themselves for” the mother
Implicitly, the gendered asymmetry of parental roles
To understand the common place of in-laws in family recomposition, step-parenthood needs to be placed within the broader sexuation of family roles. The persistence of assigning women to roles of care and love leads to a double strain for mothers-in-law.
The naturalization of maternity-related functions implies that they are more difficult to assume by a third party; moreover, the lack of emotional and symbolic reward for the role of mothers-in-law with children who are not theirs causes the tasks expected of them as women to lose clarity.
Furthermore, they resist the recreational content that tends to characterize the post-separation paternal relationship: fathers, due to their frequent caregiving restrictions, are concerned about the positive content and quality of the time shared to their children. . Mothers-in-law see here a “disrespect” of their husband that they regret and burdens the daily and domestic organization that they might aspire to.
Finally, from a more symbolic and identity perspective, the instability in the meaning of the mother-in-law’s role comes out against the stability and supposed evidence of the mother’s role, where there is more room for interpretation. on the father’s side of duties.
Despite the trivialization of family recomposition and the role of the mother-in-law, there is therefore nothing “normal” about her practical and subjective everyday experience. Questioning and documenting the lived reality of these women is an issue for family policies and more broadly for feminist reflection.
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